What electoral reform could look like in British Columbia

Opinion: B.C.’s Parliament is fragile, but it’s time for the NDP government to get moving on electoral reform

B.C. Green party leader Andrew Weaver and B.C. NDP leader John Horgan speak to media after announcing they'll be working together to help form a minority government during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Monday, May 29, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

B.C. Green party leader Andrew Weaver and B.C. NDP leader John Horgan speak to media after announcing they’ll be working together to help form a minority government during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Monday, May 29, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

Richard Johnston is a political science professor at the University of British Columbia and the Canada Research Chair in Public Opinion, Elections and Representation.

After a provincial campaign in which election law was a major issue, B.C. is about to experience another season of debate about its electoral system, and about how votes are translated into seats. The real debate hasn’t started yet, but some fear that the government will move too quickly and with insufficient consultation. Electoral reform is too important, they say, to be left to politicians. Voters will have their say in the end in a referendum next year, but on what basis?

Such comments ignore the context. There is no point in disguising the intent of the BC NDP and the Greens: to move to some form of proportional representation (PR). Opponents already know their target. Supporters of electoral reform should recognize that the NDP and Greens are the only game in town.

The key for those two parties and their natural allies is to sell their plan well, and clearly define it from the start. This should be the chief objective of the committee process that’s about to unfold. Although advocates and opponents must have their say, the committee needs to keep its eye on the ball. It should look to mobilize currently underrepresented groups such as women and minorities. For this, the ballot may be more important than the formula for translating votes into seats. Should there be a list system, where all of a party’s candidates appear on a common ballot, but where the number that get elected depends on the party’s total vote? If so, should such a list be closed or open? Should the ballot maximize voters’ freedom of action, at the risk of being long and seemingly complex? What kind of ballot is compatible with what kind of formula? These debates are important, but the committee must not be dragged down by its friends.

The NDP must also marshall its traditional base in the labour movement to think and speak clearly. In the recent past, many in the movement worried aloud that PR would split the vote on the left. The truth is, it probably would. But the comparative record is clear: parties of the left are more likely to participate in government under PR than under our current system. The key word here, however, is “participate.” Under PR, labour parties rarely get to govern by themselves; they almost always have to share power. This should be a selling point to both the left and the right.

Speaking of the right, the committee should encourage the BC Conservative party, and social conservatives more generally, to appear before it. Conservatives should be brought to see that under PR they can call the BC Liberals’ bluff, and not be forced to support a coalition that includes friends of Justin Trudeau.

It’s still going to be a tough sell. In 2004, the BC Citizens Assembly recommended a single-transferable vote model (BC-STV) with multi-member districts and a preferential ballot. Although the proposal received a majority in a 2005 referendum it fell short of the 60-per-cent threshold, and in a second referendum in 2009, it failed to even win a majority. The reasons for this shortfall were many, but a contributing factor was the map: BC-STV, like most PR setups, would force parts of the province into districts larger than most European countries. MLAs from the Interior and the North rightly fear having to represent even bigger ridings than they do now. And the economic and cultural differences between, say, the Peace River Country and Kispiox are huge.

But one form of PR delivers both full proportionality and single-member districts: mixed-member proportional (MMP) representation. MMP would require the least fiddling with the map. To keep the legislature at its current size, districts in the southern and urban parts of the province would have to be merged, but in densely populated places, large-population districts could still be tailored to natural communities of interest. Critically, imbalances among riding populations would no longer matter. In the current system, riding populations vary enormously to reflect the difficulty of representing sparse populations. The price of this is that those parts of the province also carry disproportionate weight in the most important choice: who gets to form the government. MMP will enable us to give a fair shake to those places without prejudicing the overall contest.

The key to fairness is a province-wide tier of MLAs just large enough to offset the geographic bias. These seats compensate parties for the disproportionality of district elections (and not just for differences in riding populations). Voters choose the local MLA just as they do now, but they would also cast a second ballot to indicate their preferred party, and the province-wide breakdown of these so-called party votes determines each party’s seat entitlement. District MPs count toward the party’s total.

MMP was the choice of the two reform processes not controlled by incumbents, so in a sense it stands above the fray by itself. And it works. In post-Second World War Germany, the occupying powers saw MMP as the means to build democracy on hostile turf. Not only would it be a fair process, it would minimize the likelihood of repeating the errors of the failed democracy of the Weimar Republic. It did not prevent the far-right Alternative für Deutschland from entering the Bundestag in the most recent election, but our system also would not have blocked them—and German MMP also gave us the steady hand of Angela Merkel. New Zealand, too, went through a public consultation and ended up in the same place. Moreover, the New Zealand electorate was offered a chance to return to the old system more than a decade later, and chose not to. The promise of such a reconsideration, say 15 years hence, is worth adding to B.C.’s referendum question.

To be sure, the existence of two kinds of MLAs is a downside of MMP. Members representing individual ridings will grumble at the easy life enjoyed by the policy wonks who sit as province-wide MPs. And any form of PR entails negotiations among potential coalition partners. The key is to own up to the issues and address them from the start.

Meanwhile, Elections BC will need to bring its expertise to bear on the map. Even if B.C.’s 41st Parliament lasts four years, Elections BC could use the time to get us ready for the new rules—and this fragile Parliament may not last that long.

All the more reason to just get on with it.


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